Impostor Syndrome, Brilliance, and Philosophy
A new study concludes that the more a discipline is thought to value innate “brilliance” or raw intellectual talent, the more that women in it—and especially women from groups traditionally underrepresented in that discipline—experience impostor syndrome.Inside Higher Ed reports on the research, appearing in The Journal of Educational Psychology. It was conducted by the team of Melis Muradoglu (NYU), Zachary Horne (Edinburgh), Matthew D. Hammond (Victoria), Sarah-Jane Leslie (Princeton), and Andrei Cimpian (NYU). Here’s the abstract of the paper:
Feeling like an impostor is common among successful individuals, but particularly among women and early-career professionals. Here, we investigated how gender and career-stage differences in impostor feelings vary as a function of the contexts that academics have to navigate. In particular, we focused on a powerful but underexplored contextual feature: the extent to which raw intellectual talent (“brilliance”) is prized in an academic field. We hypothesized that gender and career-stage differences in impostor feelings would be magnified in fields that value brilliance. We tested this hypothesis using the largest sample of academics that has been brought to bear on the impostor phenomenon to date, with over 4,000 academics recruited from 9 research-intensive U.S. universities and representing more than 80 fields across the natural and social sciences, the humanities, and medicine. Consistent with our hypothesis, the more that success in a field was perceived to require brilliance, the more that women—especially women from racial/ethnic groups that are traditionally underrepresented in academia—and early-career academics felt like impostors. Impostor feelings were also related to a lower sense of belonging in a field and lower self-efficacy, highlighting the potential negative implications of the impostor phenomenon for academics’ long-term success and for the diversity of fields that value brilliance.
Which field values “brilliance” the most, you might be wondering? According to previous research, that would be philosophy.
You can check out the new study here.
I was worried the earlier Leslie et al. study would be referenced. As was pointed out by “Anon” in the thread linked, Scott Alexander at SlateStarCodex put up a devastating critique of that study shortly after it appeared. It’s well worth a read, but the takeaway is that Leslie et al. didn’t present the data in a way that allowed for a more plausible and better-supported hypothesis: disciplines that are perceived to value brilliance are disciplines that tend to value quantitative reasoning, so that in the aggregate perceptions of brilliance are very plausibly tracking a quantifiable intellectual attribute.
Perceptions Of Required Ability Act As A Proxy For Actual Required Ability In Explaining The Gender Gap | Slate Star Codex
The basic issue raised by Scott Alexander was actually discussed in a series of “Comments” and “Replies” published in Science right after the original article. Scott Alexander is wrong in a pretty serious way, so it is important to get clear on that.
You can see Cimpian and Leslie’s reply here. The reply to Donna Ginther and Shulamit Kahn is the relevant one. C&L show that controlling for GRE-quant does NOT make their results go away: “brilliance beliefs” still strongly predict female representation. Even after controlling for GRE-quant, GRE-verbal, and GRE-analytic writing, brilliance beliefs still predict significantly.
It is only when you control for GRE-quant, GRE-verbal, AND their ratio (which captures the extent to which fields are selectively quantitatively focused) that brilliance beliefs stop predicting female representation.*
I think the overall picture is muddier than Scott Alexander’s take, and C&L’s result is after all fairly robust to GRE scores. But I suppose one might say the picture is also somewhat muddier than C&L’s original take too. A lot depends on whether the ratio of GRE-quant and GRE-verbal (after controlling for the individual scores themselves) is itself a measure of ability of some interesting kind. I for one don’t think it is…
* Cimpian and Leslie do go on to make a strange argument about variance inflation factors. I feel their point is incorrect and should be set aside. I don’t want to get into the weeds about this…Report
Thanks Chandra, this is helpful as a response to Ginther and Kahn. As Cimpian and Leslie point out in their reply, Ginther and Kahn’s analysis faces problems of multicollinearity, owing to the fact that their analyses looked at multiple variables that are redundant with one another: quantitative GRE score, verbal GRE score, and their ratio. Cimpian and Leslie show that, in range of models that avoid the problems introduced by such analyses, perception of brilliance still predicts the representation of women in a discipline. In their conclusion, they state:
But I understand Alexander to be arguing something different, and on the basis of a different methodology. Looking just at the quantitative GRE scores, Alexander found that the extent to which a discipline prioritizes that score is a far better predictor of the ratio of men to women in a discipline than the perception-of-brilliance hypothesis. So Alexander was not using multiple redundant variables, and he was not claiming that perceptions of brilliance have no predictive power. Indeed, the whole point of that post — which opens with a discussion about perceptions of smoking as a predictor of getting lung cancer — is that perceptions of something can be a reliable proxy when there is some other variable the perception is tracking. And as the other studies cited by Alexander indicate, there’s already evidence that the ratio of women in different disciplines is reliably covariant with quantitative GRE scores.
Maybe that shouldn’t be the case, maybe those disciplines shouldn’t emphasize quantitative reasoning, and maybe we should be fighting stereotypes about women and mathematics at an earlier age. I’m certainly in favor of the third option. But I don’t find the perceptions-of-brilliance hypothesis very plausible in light of Alexander’s analysis.
Also, while I note your desire not to get into the weeds of this, appeal to the variance inflation factor is the basis on which Cimpian and Leslie claim that Ginther and Kahn’s results are not well-founded. If that point is incorrect, I don’t see why we should accept Cimpian and Leslie’s conclusion.Report
Hi Preston. Thanks for your comments. There are two points that Alexander is making.
One is this:
(1) perception of brilliance predicts female representation only because it correlates with actual academic ability (measured by GRE-quant).
The point of competitive regression is to directly assess this, and the claim turns out to be false: Perception of brilliance significantly predicts female representation even after controlling for GRE-quant. Moreover, it does so after controlling for GRE quant, verbal, and writing concurrently too.
Another claim that Alexander is making is this:
(2) GRE-quant is a *stronger* predictor of female representation than perception of brilliance.
This claim is indeed supported in the results reported by Cimpian and Leslie. When both are entered into a competitive regression, GRE-quant has a beta of 0.60 and perception of brilliance has a beta of 0.40, and both are significant. These are standardized betas so they are kind of like correlations.
Overall though, (1) is the more damning critique, and it turns out to be false. (2) is a fair point, but it does not invalidate the perception of brilliance hypothesis. That’s why I am saying Alexander’s critique is not “devastating”.Report
Hi Chandra. Thanks for the reply. I noticed your (2) after I replied, which is pretty striking. I see that as a significant point, as Leslie et al. don’t report it in their analysis, despite prior research suggesting that very thing. As for (1), I think that’s a plausible commitment to pin on Alexander. Indeed, he says as much when he writes (emphasis added) “In other words, we find no evidence for a continuing effect of people’s perceptions of innate ability after we adjust for what those perceptions say about actual innate ability“.
But his basis for that claim is a “friendly statistician” who found that “they could reject the hypothesis that the effect of actual innate ability was entirely mediated by perceived innate ability (p = 0.002), but could not reject the hypothesis that the effect of perceived-innate-ability was entirely mediated by actual-innate ability (p = 0.36).” Unfortunately, Alexander doesn’t provide the details of that analysis. At any rate, I don’t see that Alexander’s position is any less devastating if we retract that claim and stick to (what I take to be) his primary conclusion:
And his overall conclusion sums up his aim pretty well, it seems to me.
You’ve pointed out that Alexander should have said “partially mediated” rather than “mediated” in that second paragraph. But as I see it, the contribution Alexander is making to the debate is that the perception-of-brilliance hypothesis is not as well-supported as quantitative GRE scores in explaining gender representation in different disciplines, whereas this fact was obscured in Leslie et al.’s original analysis in virtue of the way they combined verbal, writing, and quantitative GRE scores into one metric and ignored prior work on this subject. I certainly wasn’t aware of it when I first came across Leslie et al., given the way it was presented in the philosophical community.
I also think there’s work to be done in looking to see how many math courses men and women tend to take, as a measure of teaching people the skills needed to succeed in disciplines like math and physics. The idea that math requires “innate brilliance” may be doing some explanatory work because people tend to ignore how much of the success in math-heavy disciplines does not turn on innate brilliance, but rather requires concerted study. And if women tend to think they are not liable to succeed in math courses, or are otherwise dissuaded from taking them, then there’s space for intervention on a variable that, as it seems we all agree, is a much better predictor for whether women are under-represented in a profession than the perception-of-brilliance hypothesis.
Anyway, I hope that’s all fair to what you’ve said.Report
I do see your point, Preston. But the ground has shifted quite a bit. We are no longer focusing on whether Leslie et al’s data from the 2014 study supports their conclusion (I continue to maintain it does). We are now saying that they did not do enough to contextualize their results in the very the large existing literature on GRE and other measures of actual ability. Ya, so I have to agree with that. It is kind of frustrating to see a big chunk of the existing literature basically undiscussed in their paper. So that’s a very fair point.Report
Thanks Chandra, that helps. For the record, I didn’t take myself (or Alexander) to be saying that Leslie et al.’s data doesn’t support their conclusion; it’s rather that there’s a better predictor that’s already been noted in the literature, and they don’t give it any mention. I don’t think even Alexander’s claim, on behalf of his “friendly statistician” friend, that Leslie et al.’s hypothesis could be rejected on the basis of quantitative GRE scores, shows that Leslie et al.’s data doesn’t support their conclusion: it’s just that their data is incomplete, insofar as it ignores the glaring counter hypothesis about what predicts the representation of men and women in different disciplines. I hope that makes sense of my position.
To be clear, I do appreciate your contribution. I suppose people more familiar with this research would have been familiar with the competing hypothesis. And as you point out, it comes out even in the dataset they use to respond to Ginther and Kahn: quantitative GRE score is a better predictor for the proportion of women in different disciplines than the perception-of-brilliance hypothesis. That’s not to say their hypothesis has no worth. Yet they make no mention of the competing one.
So sure, maybe some people were aware of what was missing in their work, but I certainly wasn’t. So it was quite frustrating to be presented with this study when it came out, and trumpeted in the media and among philosophers as a great discovery, only to learn that they didn’t address an already-established hypothesis that is a better predictor for the representation of men and women across the academy. And it seems it continues to be presented in this way, with no discussion of the fact that it is at best an incomplete explanation, at worst a positively obfuscating contribution. Consequently, I have to concur with Alexander’s conclusion:
Some questions about the interest and practical implications of the study … So should philosophers stop valuing brilliance? Would this be any easier than getting oneself to stop valuing, say, *great* artists? (Can one really get themselves to see the mediocre ones as on a par?) — Or is the idea simply to remove the idea that brilliance is “innate” (I’m not sure what “raw” means here) – i.e., some philosophers are indeed brilliant, but it is a myth that this is not earned via work, time, energy, practice, etc.? Or should we dedicate our efforts toward widening the circle of brilliance (in various ways) to include non-white-cis-males? The latter options seem consistent with continuing to value brilliance. Curious what others think.Report
I think probably any of these options would work.
Pace your suggestion, I don’t think it’s actually that hard to stop valuing great artists, at least insofar as “great” picks out not the artists that I regard as great but the ones commonly thought of as great. I have my own tastes in art and I like some “great” artists and don’t find myself moved by others. I also enjoy some artists that I’m sure others find mediocre. I suspect most people are in the same position, especially those who were not raised in a milieu that emphasized valuing “great” artists.
And anyways, is it really that hard to stop valuing brilliance? The suggestion is not to stop valuing the works that great artists/philosophers produce. The thought is that we simply do not hold ourselves in awe of the brilliance that produced the work, as opposed to, say, the hard work, or who knows what. I don’t particularly care if the person who painted this amazing painting/wrote this amazing paper was brilliant or if the painting/paper is a fluke. I can judge the painting/paper on its own merits.
But, altering our concept of brilliance such that it’s something you can work for rather than something you’re born with would also work.
And, altering our concept of brilliance such that more sorts of people are seen as paradigms of brilliance would also work.
In fact I think we can do these three things simultaneously, and that they support rather than undermine each other. If people feel less pressure to venerate everyone traditionally described as brilliant, they will be more open to understanding brilliance in other ways and labeling other sorts of people as brilliant.
The more we alter how we understand brilliance (either by paying less attention to it or by widening its scope) the less it makes sense to say that the thing we are talking about is “brilliance” as we currently understand it, and the more it looks like we’ve started using the word to describe some other concept. And once “brilliance” picks out something different, the hope is that this new thing will not be infected with the sorts of worries the existing concept is infected with.Report
Yeah, it seems more constructive to alter the meaning and scope of brilliance, rather than somehow remove it.
Really nice thoughts overall. Though I’m not sure I agree with the following:
“And anyways, is it really that hard to stop valuing brilliance? The suggestion is not to stop valuing the works that great artists/philosophers produce. The thought is that we simply do not hold ourselves in awe of the brilliance that produced the work, as opposed to, say, the hard work, or who knows what. I don’t particularly care if the person who painted this amazing painting/wrote this amazing paper was brilliant or if the painting/paper is a fluke. I can judge the painting/paper on its own merits.”
This seems to involve a separation between the author/artist and the work they produced that many would find artificial. For some artists and philosophers, knowing their background, biography, etc. enhances the understanding and appreciation of their work. Further, understanding connections between their various, say, books, papers, articles, talks, journals, or whatever, and their life history might bind these things together in a way which shows a persistent mark of talent, an deep underlying insight, a distinctive way of looking at things, or … dare I say … a special kind of genius? Put more simply: I think your quote above is too strong, because this would seem to undermine our attention to the virtues of philosophers themselves – which requires looking at their life and work as a whole (and not simply attending to their “works” in isolation from their author). It doesn’t seem like a good idea to simply remove such an interesting mode of evaluation (and one that might inspire folks, e.g., our students or ourselves, to be more than mere authors of good articles).Report
I’m not looking forward to the comments on this one. I’m sure Sinclair’s principle that you can’t get a man to understand something when his paycheck (and in this case 2/2 teaching load, regular sabbaticals, and army of grad student servants to do his actual work for him) depends on it will be powerfully in operation. I’d also add that it’s hard to get a man to understand just how dubious the concept of innate talent, genius, etc. is when his only real accomplishment in life is say taking a test that tells him he’s brilliant or being told so by someone else who’s supposedly talented.Report
This is an odd non-sequitor. That cushy faculty jobs depend on such a conception of innate talent, etc. is dubious. It is also largely not the case that the faculty you are describing are so unacomplished (I suppose there were more such cases in the 60’s, 70’s, and earlier).Report
“That cushy faculty jobs depend on such a conception of innate talent, etc. is dubious.”
Stated this way, it does indeed appear to be dubious. But perhaps there’s another way to state it: a particular faculty member has his cushy job because he was thought to be innately talented (in the specified sense), for if Highly Regarded Mentor had not thought so, he wouldn’t have the job. This is not dubious, or at least not nearly as dubious.
When understood this way, it’s easier to understand why certain faculty would find it difficult to acknowledge the (purported) dubiousness of the relevant conception of innate talent.Report
As someone who was never good at mathematical logic, i can attest that innate talent (or lack of) is a real thing.I like to think I am a good phenomenologist. In the kingdom of philosophy there are many mansions.
More to the point, isn’t the problem not that people value brillance, but that people (in this case, women) fail to recognize their own brillance. It is a matter of perception, in particular self perception, not reality.
I am a middle aged man and only recently I discovered (maybe) that I had imposter syndrome. I never thought this before b/c philosophy has been my chief passion since my late teens. But when i see that David Chalmers has written more philosophy than i have ever read, hard not to feel inadequate.Report
I’m inclined to believe that some (very few) have innate talent to a degree that makes them geniuses. I don’t believe that there’s any problem in valuing it. I do believe there’s a problem in valuing people for having it when they don’t in fact have it. And if men more often than women are incorrectly valued in this way, that’s probably a further problem (depending on what explains why men are more likely so valued).
To your question, yes, one problem is that some don’t recognize themselves as having it. And if, of the men and women who have it, men are more likely to be given help in recognizing themselves as having it, that would likely be another problem (depending on what explains why men are more likely to be helped).Report
I’m tempted to cite this as exhibit A in what I said about the Sinclair principle. It is pretty obvious that who gets prestigious jobs depends a lot on some sort of notion of innate talent. Consider I have friends on the lecturer and adjunct tracks who’ve published a *lot* and many of these publications were in the best journals in their subspecialty or even the top ten of Leiter’s list of top generalist journals. These people never even get interviews at schools with philosophy PhD programs. In many cases they’ve seen multiple jobs they’ve applied for go to graduate students at Leitterific schools with no publications. In at least a few cases those jobs went to people from the top ten on the Leiter list who had failed to get tenure at their old jobs sometimes because they had not been able to publish even a single article in the five years they were on the tenure line. What can possibly justify this? It can’t be the quality of work. On the one hand we have a proven track record of success at what R1s claim to value while on the other we have either no record or even a proven record of failure. In my experience talent comes in as a justification for such fundamentally corrupt decisions. Sure the adjunct or lecturer might have a paper in Phil Quarterly and four or five more in perfectly respectable journals but he doesn’t have that ineffable “talent” that the graduate student with no tangible accomplishments he’s competing against does. Even the guy who failed on R1 track so far has it, though of course it has yet to manifest. The adjunct or lecturer doesn’t have talent. If he did why would he be a lecturer?
The whole idea of talent that philosophers have is pretty closely tied to some incredibly noxious ideas that are near and dear to racists, sexists, and classists of various stripes because they serve very well to legitimate their bigoted commitments. Our notion of talent is almost exactly the same one as Charles Murray has spent his whole career peddling. The only difference is that to square our idolatry of talent with the liberal pieties one has to mouth to remain a member in good standing of the educated bourgeoisie we quickly add that of course inferior and superior human types are distributed without regard to race or sex (we seem a bit shakier on whether we even want to mouth the pieties when it comes to class). And then we’re shocked, shocked that ideas so intimately tied to racist, sexist, and classist commitments end up harming minorities, women, and people lacking wealthy or upper middle class backgrounds in philosophy. Honestly as much as I loathe him I prefer Murray to the average philosophy professor or graduate student prattling on about talent out of one side of his mouth and social justice out of the other. At least Murray’s honest.
Oh and Gord I was never good at mathematical logic either but somehow, quite miraculously really, I found that I now have a decent talent for logic. So much so that my newfound talent allows me to actually understand set theory pretty well. Well enough at least to follow the formal versions of Cantor’s proofs tolerably well. (The results are, while impressive and neat, not as mind blowing as they’re made out to be. Mathematicians and logicians define size in some funny ways). More miraculously I can actually prove some pretty interesting stuff in inductive logic. It’s funny I still can’t figure out how I picked up a talent for logic last year. It’s been really nice though since it’s nice intellectual exercise to occupy oneself with when one has so much free time on their hands. Even more luckily my newfound talent came right after I’d agreed to teach a logic class and started prepping in earnest. Talk about great timing!Report
“army of grad student servants to do his actual work for him”
In a lab, sure, maybe, but what kind of philosophical work can be palmed off on graduate students? This is absurd.
“I’d also add that it’s hard to get a man to understand just how dubious the concept of innate talent, genius, etc. is when his only real accomplishment in life is say taking a test that tells him he’s brilliant or being told so by someone else who’s supposedly talented.”
And this is a straw man.Report
Do you not consider grading and leading discussions work?Report
I think there was a misunderstanding. You wrote ‘do his actual work for him’. This is ambiguous between ‘all’ and ‘some’ of his work.
My guess is that PhilGeek uncharitably interpreted you to mean ‘all his work for him’. It would be absurd to claim grads do all his work because, obviously, they wouldn’t write all his papers or invent all his theories, objections, etc. But you (of course) never meant to claim such a thing.Report
I suspect there is an instrumental rationale for why people may value “brilliance” or innate talent: they are quicker or better at producing high-quality work supposedly. Humans tend to be very impatient creatures and so somebody who is (perceived to be) brilliant will most likely be desirable or valued since they may at least (believed to) have a higher probability of resolving certain issues faster or come up with highly fruitful things better than most.
But there are empirical researches that suggest diversity of people collaborating with one another is better at producing better works than a homogenous group of people working together.
I don’t know how this will work out in professional philosophy since a lot of philosophers or hiring committees look down on co-authorship. But nevertheless, there is a lesson to be learned from the study. Perhaps, philosophers should value diversity of views and arguments more so than innate brilliance since a diversity of views can help stimulate better reflection and arguments on many issues. Perhaps departments should reflect a diversity of philosophical areas and practices.
Of course, there is a con as well: a diversity of views/articles published does not guarantee being closer to the truth. In fact, it could lead to more noise and not profundity. The world of business is also highly different from the world of academia where most of the things being produced are theories, arguments, and research.
Personally, I never felt that there was this general perception of brilliance as a science student since most of my classmates were average like me. As well, my science professors were very friendly, caring, and down to Earth people. As well, research is mostly collaborative. But philosophy is a bit different since we’re expected to produce original work that is fruitful. For slow learners like me, it could be difficult and intimidating.
Overall, I never felt pressure to be brilliant as a science student. My professors cared more about my study techniques and habits than brilliance or innate talent. In fact, one professor would keep reminding us to study better.Report
Interesting findings. It seems likely that one of the main items for the brilliance measure (“I think that with the right amount of effort and dedication, anyone can be a top scholar of [my discipline]”) could be tracking lots of other unique challenges women and especially women from groups traditionally underrepresented could be facing in fields apart from their brilliance orientation?Report